Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

Birds, Butterflies, A Few Blossoms and Basking Turtles: Circling the Eastern Side of Draper Twin Lake Park

Looking from the south side of Draper marsh toward the northern prairie.

The eastern side of Draper Twin Lake Park grows more inviting every year. Some of the former farm fields there had been abandoned for decades when Oakland Township Parks and Recreation acquired the property in 2005. Dense thickets of invasive shrubs crowded the shores of the marsh and began to spread within what had been a rolling prairie and oak savanna landscape in the centuries before European settlement.

But restoration is slowly changing this somewhat scruffy park back to its former beauty.  After forestry mowing, the trail by the marsh, once choked with stands of non-native shrubs, now provides open vistas.

The trail on the west side of the floating marsh is now cleared of invasive shrubs so that a stand of native White Pines (Pinus strobus) and other trees can be appreciated.

The dark water of the marsh sparkles between the scrim of trees and shrubs that surround its shores. The roots of grasses and shrubs form a floating mat at the heart of the marsh, creating nest sites for birds large and small. Migrating birds flit through the trees at the marsh edge singing spring songs. Some settle in to mate, nest and raise young; others simply forage, rest and move on.

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Photos and text by Cam Mannino

On warm days in the northern prairie, tiny spring butterflies dart and dance within the dry stalks of last year’s prairie wildflowers and grasses, while the shimmering blue wings of Tree Swallows soar and dip above them. By mid-summer, fresh prairie grasses will sway above fields mixed with the bright colors of native wildflowers and big beautiful butterflies. But even a cool spring day can be beguiling.

So just for a few minutes, escape with me. Muster your imagination as we explore Draper Twin Lake Park together. Listen to a brisk breeze hushing in your ears and feel warm sun on your shoulders as I take a turn around the marsh and then circle the field on the prairie trail loop on a bright spring morning.

In the  Spring, the Marsh is the Place to See and Be Seen!

DTLP_TrailMap

My Draper Twin Lake Park hiking route

Wetlands mean wildlife in every one of our parks. After parking at the building at 1181 Inwood Road, I headed left, leaving the path to enter the trees that shelter the south edge of the floating mat marsh, pictured at the top of the blog.

The clarion “wika wika” call of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) throbbed overhead as these elegant woodpeckers whisked back and forth in the treetops, competing for mates and territory. This mustached male and his mate will spend the summer with us, nesting in a tree cavity, but foraging on the ground, unlike other woodpeckers; ants are a favored meal for flickers.

A male Northern Flicker challenging other males with his “wika wika” call

A pudgy, green-gray bird hopped about within a tangle of vines, repeatedly flicking its wings and only pausing for a few seconds each time it jumped to a new twig. The male Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was enjoying a bit of R&R before flying north, possibly as far as Hudson’s Bay. Imagine! On those tiny wings! There its mate can lay 5-12 eggs in a 4 inch nest woven with grasses, feathers, moss, cocoon or spider silk and lined with finer grass and fur. Never underestimate the little Kinglet!

My photo was a bit blurred by movement in a heavy wind, but bird enthusiasts and excellent photographers, Bob Bonin and his wife Joan, also visited Draper in the last two weeks. In fact, we chatted from a safe social distance when we came across each other at the park.  They generously offered to share some of the photos they took at Draper. So here’s Bob’s rare shot of an excited little male with his crown raised! Thanks for the loan, Bob!

An excited male Ruby-crowned Kinglet with his crest raised – a rare sight to see with this busy little bird. Photo by Bob Bonin with permission.

Joan shared two other migrating birds she saw on the east side of Draper. The Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) sports such dramatic plumage! It has two versions of its song that has a lot of buzz and a smaller bit of  “tweet” in it. One song is directed at competing males and the other is used to attract females. Find an explanation of both, a video and some recordings here at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

The Black-throated Green Warbler doesn’t come to feeders and breeds a bit farther north of us and farther into Canada. So it’s a treat to see one! Photo by Joan Bonin.

Joan also provided us with a lovely photo of a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) at Draper. Cornell Lab reports that this modest little milk chocolate bird with the spotted breast utilizes “foot quivers,” when foraging, shaking its feet in the grass to stir up insects. I will watch for that the next time I see one!

Hermit Thrushes breed north of us where its flute-like call is more likely to be heard. Photo by Joan Bonin.

A pair of Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) skittered around me within the low bushes at the marsh. Traveling from the Caribbean to Canada, they were hungry. Their tails wagged up and down as they grazed along the ground for insects. This one thought it might have spotted something interesting in the crevices of tree bark. Note the brown crown, yellow eyeline, throat and the yellow under its tail.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, ninety-eight percent of all Palm Warblers and thousands of other species breed in the boreal forests of northern Canada, an essential ecosystem!

Looking north, I spotted something large in the trees at the far north end of the marsh. For the second time this spring, I got a distant look at a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) surveying the landscape. I’m so used to seeing these birds wading at the edges of ponds. It always delights me to see them perching high up in a tree, though I know their big, flat nests are always situated at the top of high trees in their rookeries.

A Great Blue Heron looking out from the treetops at the far north end of Draper’s floating mat marsh.

As I moved to the west side of the marsh, I looked up into the frothy blossoms of one of my favorite native trees, the Serviceberry (Amelanchier interior).

The rippling petals of a Serviceberry in a spring wind.

This tree with its plumes of white blossoms in the early spring offers a native alternative to the non-native Callery/Bradford Pear trees (Pyrus calleryana) that flower at the same time. If shopping malls and housing developments bloomed with this native beauty each spring, the fields of our natural areas would not be invaded by groves of the invasive pears. We can hope for a change as the value of native plants is better understood by more landscapers.  Several stately serviceberry trees dot the early spring landscape at Draper Twin Lake Park. Aren’t these clouds of dancing white lovely in the sparseness of the spring landscape?

A native Serviceberry tree makes a perfect replacement for the invasive, non-native Callery/Bradford Pear.

In a shadowy pool beneath low branches on the west shore of the floating mat marsh, some movement caught my eye. A Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) dipped its head into the water while balancing on stick, probably plucking insect larvae or small invertebrates  out of the dark water. Fortunately this sparrow is equipped with long legs for wading and doesn’t mind the cold water, if this sopping-wet bird is any indication!

This swamp sparrow stuck its head under water while fishing for insect larvae or tiny invertebrates.

Out at the edge of the floating mat, a pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) warmed their shells in faint spring sunlight. Perhaps these two will mate or perhaps they’re just basking together. These two larger turtles could be quite old; Midland Painted Turtles sometimes live over 50 years!

Our Midland Painted Turtles can mate in the spring or fall.

The “boing!” call of a Green Frog (Lithobates climatans) surprised me, so I approached to search the water until I spotted this one. Since the round ear drum or tympanum is about same size as its eye, this is a female Green frog. She may have jumped the gun a bit with the changeable spring weather. Normally, Green Frogs don’t wake from their winter somnolence until the temperature reaches 50 degrees and they don’t mate until the weather is consistently warm. So this female may need to bide her time even though there was a male singing somewhere nearby.

The skin of Green Frogs darkens on cold days so they can soak up more sun.

Back out along the trail on the west side of the marsh, I met a turtle with a ferocious visage, a snout for snorkeling air from under water and an intimidating set of claws! Here’s the steely glare of this master predator, the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

This Snapper must have emerged from the mud before heading out to look for companionship.

I’m kidding really. Yes, it did look fierce, but I was being stared down by a small Snapper maybe 8 inches long who probably was just curious.

This small snapper may not yet be mature enough to mate.

I have no idea of its age or what it was doing on trail. According to Wikipedia, a snapper can take 15-20 years to reach sexual maturity and mating is usually done while tumbling about in the  water. So unless this one is older than it looks and was looking for a place to lay eggs, it may have just decided to go on walkabout. Snappers sometimes move great distances to find less crowded habitat, as well as to lay eggs. After all, that carapace, an extremely long neck, powerful jaws and claws are pretty good protection for an adventurous young snapper.

As I stood at the north end of the floating mat marsh, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) flew swiftly back and forth across the pond. Its yellowish-orange feet trailed behind its bulky body as it landed in the vegetation around the shore. Luckily, Joan later spotted one out in the open in the southeast section of the marsh. One way to spot this colorful bird is to listen for its distinctive “skeow” call;  listen here under the first “calls” recording. That’s the Green Heron sound with which I’m most familiar.

A Green Heron at Draper Twin Lake Park. Photo by Joan Bonin.

Her husband, Bob, saw a bird that I’d never come across before – and neither had Bob.  The Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) loves wetlands and according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will even settle for a puddle if it’s near cover. It was migrating through on its way from the Caribbean to its breeding grounds in northern Canada. Bob went back to look for it again the next day, but it never appeared. I feel lucky that it “popped out of cover,” as Bob put it, at just the right moment for him to take his photo!

A rare photo of a Northern Waterthrush at Draper Twin Lake Park taken by Bob Bonin.

When I reached the southeast corner myself, a pair of Sandhill Cranes, heads down, were calmly feeding on the floating mat, looking up once a while, and then back to feeding again

This pair of Sandhill Cranes might consider the floating mat a good place for a nest since the marsh creates a kind of moat! Sandhills have nested here before.

As my camera zoomed in on that startling orange eye beneath the crimson cap on one of these huge birds, I hoped that they would choose to nest there as Sandhills did a few years ago. I’d love to see a “colt,” as their fledglings are called, join its parents at the Draper marsh.

A closer look at one of the Sandhill Cranes

That southeast corner of the marsh is full of turtles. I know that Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) live at Draper Twin Lake Park because I once helped one across the road outside of the park and Donna, the Draper bluebird monitor, has seen them, too. Last week, I thought I saw their slightly domed shells deep in the grass at the southeast corner of the marsh, but they never raised their heads. But Joan Bonin and her very long lens caught this wonderful closeup of one! Thank you, Joan!

Joan Bonin’s wonderful photo caught the yellow throat perfectly, the distinctive field mark of the Blanding’s Turtle.

As I was looking for the Blanding’s turtle,  I noticed a dark lump laying in the water behind a mud flat in the marsh. Could it be? Was that a neck stretched out to gather some sun? I think what I saw was a large Snapper, its neck partially extended along the mud flat, camouflaged as just another black lump in the landscape. Look for its pointed head and eye to the right in the grass. That looks like a large snapper to me!

A large snapper masquerading as just another lump of mud in the Draper Marsh.

Some small upland birds share the southeast corner with turtles and herons. One dark, windy day, my husband and I caught sight of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and identified it from its characteristic yellow patch above the tail. It appeared to be the more modestly dressed female. Here are the photos I got from a distance 10 days ago and a much better one from 2015.

On a snag near the edge of the trees, a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) ignored me completely while he belted out his wonderful, bubbling trill. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their sharp, fizzy song sallies forth from Canada, through the West Indies, all the way to the tip of South America.

A House Wren, beak wide-open in full song.

The distinctively sweet “tweeting” of an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) caused me to look up at this little splash of bright sunlight on a cloudy day. The males have donned their brightest colors and execute their rolling flight all over Draper.

A male American Goldfinch posed quite calmly near the southeast edge of the marsh.

On to the North Prairie!

Volunteer Donna Perkins has already found bluebird eggs in two of her boxes within the prairie!

Volunteer nest box monitors like Donna Perkins above are citizen scientists who are gathering data on which birds nest in the boxes, how many eggs they lay, how many days pass before hatching and fledging and how many little birds successfully leave the nest. Donna found six Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) eggs in two of her boxes. And along the prairie’s edge, male and female bluebirds surveyed the area, keeping an eye on their nests.

Don’t worry if you find a nest with eggs in your yard with no adult around. Birds take time off to forage and if scared off of their nest, will usually return. But most often, once the last egg has been laid, the adult will start incubating them most of the day, which helps ensure that they all hatch at the same time, making it easier to care for them.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) move into our township nest boxes as well. Usually, Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows will live in a neighborly way when their boxes are near each other, though occasionally there’s competition for a preferred box. Neither species, however, will tolerate another member of their own species moving nearby. So right now, the Tree Swallows are beginning to construct their nests with a mixture of grasses carefully lined with feathers. What a sight to see these shining blue beauties swooping over the field, periodically opening their beaks to snag passing insects. Joan Bonin got a fabulous shot of two of them in flight over the Draper prairie – an exciting and rare shot! Congratulations and thanks to Joan for sharing it.

Tree Swallows in flight above the Draper prairie. Photo by Joan Bonin.

A clear song rippled out from the tree line to our right. So loud! What was that? We finally located the rear end of a male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) facing out of the park to the east. In the distance, we could hear his competitor singing as well.  Establishing territory is serious business, so our Towhee in the park never budged an inch, though we waited for almost 20 minutes, listening but frustrated that he kept his back turned. So the photo below was taken last year at Draper. This year’s towhee sang his “drink your teeeeeea” song much more slowly than usual, so it took longer to identify it. Maybe the song had more emphasis that way for the male in the distance!

An Eastern Towhee singing from a snag at Draper in 2019.

We came across, though, a sad sight on the prairie – an injured Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) feeding on a path but unable to take flight. It appeared right in front of us and at first I thought it had an injured wing. But when it turned its head, its eye was swollen shut. When I asked local birding expert, Ruth Glass, she said that it had probably hit its head on a window. When that happens, the brain can swell and they lose their ability to orient themselves. It was foraging on the ground and fluttered off into the tall grass. I include this just to ask that you do what you can to prevent such window collisions. Here’s a link from Cornell to get you started.

On a happier note, some small spring butterflies floated and fluttered near the prairie trails. I always wonder what criteria make them settle on one stem rather than another; much of their frantic fluttering seems aimless, but I doubt that it really is. I clearly don’t see what they do!

An orange flash in the grass made me think I was seeing my first Pearl Crescent, a common sight on summer days in our parks. But this mid-sized butterfly was an Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma). The upper (dorsal) side of both its forewings and hindwings are tawny orange with black spots. It was born last fall and is referred to as the “winter form”; it overwintered as an adult and will now mate and lay eggs. The caterpillars from those eggs will hatch around the Summer Solstice (June 21) and the offspring from that generation (referred to as the “summer form”) will still have orange forewings, but their hindwings will be much darker than this one.

An Eastern Comma sipping on an open dandelion bloom. It wintered over and will now seek a mate!

But look at the underside of this butterfly’s wings! The winter form Eastern Comma spends the cold months under tree bark or inside logs; that mottled brown design does a nice job of camouflage while they are hibernating, I would imagine.

The pattern on the underside of the Eastern Comma’s wings camouflages it during hibernation under tree bark.

A female Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) paused to sip at a dandelion, just as the Eastern Comma did. One good reason not to remove dandelions from your lawn in early spring is that native bees and butterflies benefit from the nectar of this non-native flower when few other blossoms are available. Male Cabbage Butterflies have one spot on their forewings; females have two.

A female Cabbage Butterfly benefits from the presence of dandelions.

A flash of lavender blue appeared in the grass – a Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)! This little insect is only as big as your thumbnail. Its host plants (the ones on which it will lay eggs) include Wild Cherry, Flowering Dogwood, Gray Dogwood and Blueberries. This one didn’t stop long enough for anything but a photo of a blurry smudge of blue. So here’s the best photo I’ve ever gotten of one – only because it made the rare move of posing for a moment! If you see a blue blur flying by during July through September, that’s the Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta), a different species.

The blue open wings of the tiny Spring Azure butterfly in a photo from 2015.

A surprise on the prairie was a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). I’ve never seen one this early in the year! Could it have rushed the season like the Green Frog? Usually the nymphs arrive when the weather is much warmer and this one appeared to have its wings which would indicate that it’s an adult. So I’m puzzled. Normally I would send this photo  to Dr. Gary Parsons, an insect specialist as Michigan State University – but I believe the university is closed during the pandemic. So if any reader has more information than I, please leave a comment to that effect. I love its beady eyes, but wonder if it survived the cold nights that followed.

The nymph of a Carolina Locust that hatched a bit earlier than it probably should have.

Restoring Complex, Nourishing, Chaotic Beauty

Draper Marsh, looking south toward Inwood Road

Farm fields can be so lovely in spring – neat rows of green as far as the eye can see taking the shape of a field’s rolling contours. But as I’ve watched the stewardship crew recreate the natural landscapes in our parks, I’ve come to love even more the glorious chaos of wild natural areas. Here at the eastern section of Draper Twin Lake Park, the fields of last year’s stalks once again host nesting Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, looking like shining bits of sky taking up residence in our midst. Turtles safely sally forth from the marsh mud to mate and warm their chilled shells in the pale spring sunlight. The dark water around the floating marsh hosts frogs, several jousting Red-winged Blackbird couples, and those ancient and elegant cranes. Weary avian travelers find respite, nourishment and for some, a place to raise their young. As years of invasive overgrowth are cleared, the old farm fields bloom with a rich array of native trees, grasses and wildflowers. Once again the marsh and the prairies take up their ancient role of providing shelter and nourishment to a whole and healthy community of wildness.  During this difficult time, restoration comforts and delights me – and many of you, too, I believe, since new visitors have recently explored our parks. Thanks for accompanying me, even at such a great social distance.

TINY, INTREPID MIGRATORS: The Colorful Warblers of Late Spring

Polish up your binocular lenses and head outside, dear readers!  The trees, shrubs and marshes are filled with a rainbow of colorful birds. And though some of these visitors may choose to stay and raise young here, others are just passing through.  So time’s a-wasting!

The second and third weeks of May are probably the busiest weeks of the spring for those of us who enjoy birds. New birds arrive daily at our feeders and we rush to the window. Flocks gather at  birding ‘hot spots” like Tawas Point in Michigan or Magee Marsh in Ohio and we pack up the car and take off to see them.  Familiar birdsong in the treetops prompts the birding group to go silent and look up.

A tree full of busy warblers captivated the birding group in May 2018.

Scientists theorize that the tiny warblers, and many other spring birds, may have made long, arduous journeys through the night ever since their ancestors in the tropics experimented with moving north in the spring.  As the glaciers retreated, some of the tropical or sub-tropical birds kept pushing on a bit further north each spring, seeking more sunlit hours and different or more nourishing food. Those ancestors liked what they found –  longer summer days, an abundance of blossoms and insects and plenty of nesting sites. And lucky for us, they eventually arrived here in Oakland Township and liked what they saw.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

This year,  I got curious about  where our visiting warblers spent the winter. How far had they  traveled to reach Michigan from their wintering grounds? I also wanted to be sure which birds you and  I need to look for right now, before they fly off to breed further north and which ones we can relax about a bit, because they’ll spend the summer with us, raising their young in our parks and yards. The more I learn about nature, the more I feel myself embedded in the natural world – and I like that feeling.

So here’s what I’ve learned about some visiting warblers so far this month. These birds are all ones I’ve seen this spring. But I’m using some of last year’s photos  when they’re better than some of the ones I took during this year’s cold, rainy spring. Next week, I hope to explore the fellow travelers, other beautiful migrators that accompanied this year’s warblers  and will be spending the summer with us as well.

Some Warblers are Here Only Occasionally or are Just Passing Through

Evidently for some birds,  our area is a good place to get some R & R, but locations further north have charms that lure them on.  Perhaps these migrators long for cooler summer temperatures, deeper forests, or a reliable food source that they need or simply prefer.

At Magee Marsh in Ohio, my husband and I saw our first male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), named for the bright yellow robes of Roman Catholic papal clerks.  You can’t see this male’s lovely blue-gray wings in my photo because he wouldn’t stop singing his four tweet song.  I think his clear golden feathers with a peachy blur are probably the prettiest yellow feathers I’ve ever seen! Prothonotary numbers are dwindling due to a lack of forested wetlands in the U.S. and the loss of mangrove forests along the Atlantic Coast of Central and northern South America, where they spend the winter.  They more commonly breed in Missouri, Arkansas and the south but a few do choose to breed in our area.  Some were seen along the Clinton River Trail in the last couple of years. So,  enjoy a rare treat if you spot this beautiful warbler!

The Prothonotary Warbler has blue-gray wings that don’t show here because he was too busy singing to hop about!

The male Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata) below may look like an overgrown Chickadee, but Blackpolls are avian record-holders!  Cornell Ornithology Lab reports that, “This long-distance athlete weighs less than half an ounce yet makes the longest overwater journey of any songbird—nearly 1,800 miles nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean to its wintering grounds.”  Imagine!   Now they are on their way to mate in Northern Canada; some go all the way to Hudson’s Bay! According to Cornell Lab, to accomplish their monumental autumn flights, Blackpolls have to double their weight!  Talk about bulking up!

The Blackpoll Warbler can fly over the Atlantic for 3 days nonstop on its way to its wintering grounds. Though still quite numerous, their numbers have fallen 88% in the last 40 years.

This male Magnolia Warbler with its black necklace and mask was on its way to Northern Michigan or Canada because he prefers to breed in dense conifer forests.  And he’s already traveled a long way since he winters in the Caribbean or Central America.

This male Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) spent his winter in the Caribbean or Central America. He’s on his way to the conifer forests of Northern Michigan  of Canada.

Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) travel super long distances, too.  According to Wikipedia, they winter in the mountains from Colombia to Peru at heights of 2,000-8,000 feet.  They also prefer to breed in coniferous forests, especially ones with hemlocks.  So they’re heading farther north to upper Michigan and Canada.  While there, they’ll spend most of their time in the high canopy, plucking moth and butterfly larvae from the treetops.  So the best time to see them is during migration when they’re down at eye level.

The Blackburnian Warbler travels here from mountainous areas from Colombia to Peru

The Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) spends its winters in Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America.  Parulas raise young from Florida to the boreal forests of northern Canada, but according to Cornell, they skip Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and some northeastern states.  Why avoid us?  Mosses like the southern Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)  or northern lichens like Old Man’s Beard (g. Usnea) that droop from branches are important to the Parula for nesting material and neither is common in our area.  So since they breed north of us and south of us but not here,  try to see them before they move on!

The Northern Parula’s  rust-colored throat isn’t visible in this photo.  It breeds in many states but not here since we don’t have the tree mosses  or lichens they depend on for nesting material.

According to the migration map at Cornell, the Yellow-rumped Warbler just barely misses our area during the breeding season.  They  breed north of  Michigan’s “thumb.”  The reason may be that,  like the Blackburnian, they prefer mature forests with more conifers in them than we have around here.  Luckily, during migration,  I’ve seen them many times at Bear Creek Park, either around the playground pond or in the oak-hickory forest.  They can winter as far north as Indiana and Ohio (rarely in the southern edge of Michigan) because they can digest fruits that other warblers can’t,  like juniper or myrtle, but also the fruits of poison ivy, poison oak and virginia creeper, for heaven’s sake!   Strong stomachs, eh? This one rested at Magee Marsh this year before crossing Lake Erie.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler prefers the conifer forests of Canada as nesting territory.

During migration, I’ve spotted Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) year after year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Their song is a rapid buzzing trill,   Look for Palm Warblers on the ground, a location uncommon for most warblers.  They also do a lot of tail pumping while they forage. Palm Warblers prefer to nest in the boreal (evergreen) forests of Canada. Their migration north begins in Florida or the Caribbean.

Palm Warblers spend a lot of time on the ground, which is unusual for warblers.

Some Warblers Spend the Summer With Us.

All summer long, we are graced with the presence of other warblers.  They are small and can be difficult to see hidden in the summer greenery, though, so it’s a delight to see them before the leaves are fully grown.  I have yet to see a warbler nest, but I’ve only become aware of these little beauties since I joined the birding group, so maybe you long-time birders have spotted them raising young. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!

The Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), one of my favorite warblers,  is shown on Cornell Lab’s migration map as  nesting here in our area,  but I’ve only seen them during migration.  Please let me know if you see one during the summer or hear what Cornell describes as their “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” breeding song. These little birds spend their winters among tropical birds in Central and northern South America. They tend to go back to the same tropical area each autumn and  hang out and feed with the same mixed group of tropical birds they hung out with the previous year. I’d love to see that reunion each year!

The Chestnut-sided Warbler spends the winter with the same group of tropical birds in Central or northern South America.

Happily, the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a common summer resident in our parks.  These bright yellow birds are likely to be in shrubs or trees near wetlands.  The male’s very quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” call can be heard at quite a distance, so keep following that call! This tiny bird is also a long distance migrator.  Yellow Warblers fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Central America or northern South America. Wouldn’t their tropical ancestors be proud of them?  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Some of our eastern American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) only travel to Florida for the winter.  But many fly on to the Greater Antilles (the large islands in the Caribbean) or to northern South America.   Listen for its cheerful song since they mate in our area, as well as over a large area of the  country. The Redstart is believed to startle insects out of trees by simultaneously drooping its orange-patched wings and flashing open its colorful  tail. It must work, because Cornell says that they excel among the warblers at catching flying insects.

The intricately  patterned Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia) hop along, around, over and under the trunks and branches of trees, much like nuthatches,  looking for insects in the moss and bark. They can nest here, though I’ve only seen them during migration and don’t yet recognize their rapid, shrill trill.  They build nests  on the ground in forest leaf litter, so we’re more likely to see them in parks than on our tidy lawns.  They are scrappy little birds that give the Redstarts and Chickadees a hard time when establishing territory. Some travel to Florida for the winter, but others fly on to northern South America where they hassle inhabitants there as well!

The Black-and-white Warbler hops about on trees and branches searching for insects or insect eggs,  much as the Nuthatch and Brown Creeper do.

The birding group sees  or hears Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) during migration.  The maps at Cornell Lab shows that some breed here, but they’re more likely to nest farther north in forests with mature trees. There they often feed high up in the canopy.  So really, the best time to see them is when they’re migrating because they tend to stay further down in the greenery. Though they do have a mating song, we’re most likely to hear their buzzing “zzzzz” territorial song while they’re traveling.  The mating song is the first recording at this Cornell link and the buzzing call is the second one.  They may have migrated up  from the Caribbean. Or they may have traveled from Central America and northern South America, either around or over the Gulf of Mexico.

Listen for the buzzing “zzzzz” call of The Black-throated Green Warbler to locate it during migration.

Birds Flowing Over Us  in the Dark Night Sky

Imagine standing on your lawn in the dark on a warm spring night.  Though you can’t see them in the dark sky, a river of small birds, dressed in their best courtship colors, are  alternately soaring and fluttering as they ride the south wind.  Most of  the smallest ones travel in large mixed flocks for safety.  For hundreds of miles each night, they wing their  way beneath the stars.  They’re battered by unexpected cold fronts and rainstorms that force them down  to the earth, sometimes in places unsuitable for rest or foraging. They rest, try to forage and fly on.  They dodge predators like owls  or suburban cats that patrol the night and hawks and other predators by day.  They fly on. Some are confused by the bright lights of buildings or towers and break against unseen glass or metal, falling to their deaths by the millions each year. But luckily, others manage to tilt their wings, swerve away or over these obstacles and fly on.  Driven by the need to find the optimum habitat for raising their young,  these colorful small birds persist in the journey defined by their tropical ancestors thousands of year ago.

Now these lovely, hungry, weary travelers have arrived or  at least have chosen to stop, rest and eat here before continuing on.  It seems only right that we take a little time to appreciate them.  Their bustling activity,  brilliant color and cheerful song provide a welcome change after the quiet, cold, gray-and-brown landscape of  winter.  Now that I’ve come to know some of them, late spring is even more of a joy.  I wish that for you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Amazing Migrators on the Move!

Monarch butterflies at Tawas Point State Park last weekend. Photo by Nancy Isken

Well, they’re off!  When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

And of course,  it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of  Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only  5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip  back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that!  So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among  real, live superheroes!

A female Green Darner on the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the  Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?

Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.

A Painted Lady sipping nectar during migration

At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration,  somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.

Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May?  Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now.  Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:

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If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s  Cranefest at Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.

A large flock of migrating Tundra Swans called over Cranberry Lake Park. (Photo by Bon Bonin)

Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks.  The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m.  The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above  for “Stewardship Events.”  We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators.  Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.

So yes, summer is waning.  But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures.  I recommend looking upward this fall and  perhaps wishing  “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: A Warblerfest at Two Township Parks

Fellow birder Tom Korb’s photo of Oakland Township birding group watching spring warblers.

I doubt that many of the  birders in Tom Korb’s photo above had previously spent over half an hour observing a small group of trees with sheer delight. But of course, these trees at Cranberry Lake Park were decorated with colorful, little spring warblers! The warblers and other migrators had flown in on a south wind the night before and were now hungrily feasting on sweet spring catkins. Most of  these tiny birds will rest here and then fly farther north, so there were no territorial or mating squabbles. They were content to just nibble and flutter from limb to limb among their traveling companions as we eagerly watched below.

The same phenomenon occurred at Bear Creek Park the week before. A south wind had helped carry warblers and other small birds over the township and then heavy rain had forced them down out of the skies to settle in the trees around the playground pond.

So here’s a gallery of the photos I was able to catch of these tiny, flitting warblers, and a few bonus birds. For birds that we saw or heard, but were too quick for me, I’ve added two photos taken in previous years and two by  gifted local photographers, Joan and Bob Bonin.  Thank you to Joan, Bob and Tom! (Click on pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

 

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